It’s no surprise that for humans, culture decides a vast majority of our preferences: from the language we speak to the food we like. But surprisingly, animals also make decisions based on cultural preferences.

Image credits: Feargus Cooney.

Why do we do the things that we do? We might think it’s in our genes or it’s just who we are (and that’s partially true), but our culture also plays an important role.

“Cultural inheritance, the transmission of socially learned information across generations, is a huge influence on human behavior: we behave the way we do not just because of our genes, but also because of what we learn from parents, teachers, and cultural role models,” says Michael Cant from the University of Exeter. “It is less well appreciated that cultural inheritance is a major force shaping behavior in a wide range of non-human animals, from insects to apes.”

Intriguingly, this is not something limited to humans — or to primates, for that matter. Among others, whales and birds have been shown to exhibit cultural inheritance, and it makes a lot of sense: parents pass information off to their offspring, helping them adapt to the world more quickly and waste less energy learning useful skills.

Along with these useful skills, parents also pass down preference, but this has been notoriously difficult to study in mammals. In a new study, Cant and colleagues had to take advantage of a quirk in banded mongoose society. Banded mongooses live in highly cooperative groups. The groups trust other members of the society so much that offspring form exclusive one-to-one caring relationships with unrelated adults — called escorts. Escorts aren’t really related to the offspring, it’s just a case of simple fostering.

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Cant and his team closely followed this relationship and surprisingly, found that the younglings tend to follow the foraging behavior of the escorts who took care of them — not their parents. In other words, the mongoose exhibit cultural, and not genetic, inheritance.

“It was a big surprise to discover that foraging behavior learned in the first three months of life lasts a lifetime,” Cant says. “To illustrate, our data show that even middle-aged mongooses are still copying the foraging behavior of the escort that looked after them for a short period when they were a small pup, years before. This is pretty remarkable, since we have no evidence that pups and escorts preferentially hang out together after pups become independent.”

The study seems to suggest that cultural inheritance may be a much more pervasive behavior than we thought. It doesn’t require a large brain or mental complexity, Cant says, and might, therefore, be much more common than we once thought it to be.

Ultimately, researchers say they’d like “to understand not just how different early life influences on development work in social organisms, but why they evolved.”

Journal Reference: Sheppard & Marshall et al.: “Decoupling of Genetic and Cultural Inheritance in a Wild Mammal”. Current Biology. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30603-1

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